As you know, Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on Saturday. McCovey Chronicles has a terrific rundown of the 50 Awesome Things about Lincecum's no-hitter. For our purposes at Minor League Ball, Lincecum's gem is a good excuse to review what he was like as a prospect.
Lincecum was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2003, a 48th round pick out of high school in Renton, Washington. He didn't sign and went to college at the University of Washington, emerging quickly as an effective and dominating college arm, going 10-3, 3.53 ERA in 112 innings as a freshman in '04, fanning 161 in 82 walks. He was just as good as a draft-eligible sophomore in '05, going 8-6, 3.11 with a 131/71 K/BB in 104 innings. He turned down the Indians who drafted him in the 42nd round.
Returning for his junior year in '06, he went 12-4, 1.94 ERA with a 199/63 K/BB in 125 innings for the Huskies, allowing just 75 hits. He made 17 starts, relieved in five games,and picked up three saves. Opinion about him was actually somewhat mixed: his small size (5-10, 155), high walk rate, heavy college workload, and unusual mechanics made him a rather non-traditional pitching prospect. While he was a lock for the first round, some teams thought he was the best pitcher available, while others felt he was more of a back-end first-round guy.
He ended up going 10th-overall to the Giants. He looked great in his pro debut, pitching 31.2 innings between short-season Salem-Keizer and High-A San Jose, combining for a 1.73 ERA with a 58/12 K/BB and just 14 hits allowed. He showed four quality pitches: 93-98 MPH fastball, nasty curveball, good slider, good change. He was confident and dominant, the only question being how his arm would hold up.
I gave Lincecum a Grade A- entering 2007, ranking him as the Number Five pitching prospect in baseball, behind Phil Hughes, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, and Homer Bailey, who had all proven themselves in Double-A or higher at the time.
Lincecum never appeared on another prospect list. He blew away Triple-A in five starts to open 2007 (4-0, 0.29, 46/11 K/BB in 31 innings, 12 hits), then spent most of the season in the Giants rotation, holding his own as a rookie (7-5, 4.00 in 146 innings, 150/65 K/BB, 112 ERA+. As you know, he thrived in 2008 (7.1 WAR) and 2009 (7.5 WAR) winning two consecutive Cy Young Awards. He began to fade but was still very effective in '10 and '11.
Last year was bad, his WAR dropping to just 0.9, leading the NL in losses with an ERA spike to 5.18. He's rebounded this year, with the no-hitter standing out plus improvement in his component ratios. His ERA remains worse-than-league at 4.26, ERA+ 79, but his FIP and xFIP are closer to his career norms and his WAR is solid enough with a 1.4 mid-season mark.
It seems clear that Lincecum's early career workload has caught up with him: he no longer throws in the upper-90s, topping out about 93 these days rather than 98. However, his secondary pitches (particularly his changeup) are still solid enough, and he still has enough velocity to survive just fine if his command is sharp.
Through age 28, Lincecum's Sim Score comps are Sid Fernandez, J.R. Richard, Jake Peavy, Bob Gibson, Jered Weaver. Kevin Appier, Chan Ho Park, Kerry Wood, Doug Drabek, and Dan Haren. Some of those guys remained effective as they got older, some of them didn't. Lincecum needs to complete the transition from power pitcher to crafty veteran. If he does that, he can be an above-average pitcher for some years to come.